Campus bus driver missed, celebrated

Megan Thorne
Christy Gretencord, the lead teacher for the Children’s Learning Center’s 2-year-olds, helped her class decorate the fence to welcome James Putnam, university bus driver, back to campus.

Christy Gretencord said she felt the heart of the university was missing the first weeks of school.

James Putnam, university bus driver, was missing the first three weeks of school due to a car accident injury. The waves and fistbumps he was notorious for were gone, leaving the university feeling empty.

“It was the first day back from the semester, and one of my kids asked me, ‘Where is James?,’” lead teacher for the Children’s Learning Center 2-year-olds said. “We didn’t know where he was so we put a message on the fence asking, ‘Where is James?’.”

The message on the fence reflected the question everyone on campus seemed to be asking.

“I knew others probably were wondering where James was,” Gretencord said. “But I didn’t realize everyone else loved him as much as we did. It didn’t really occur to me until (USI Photography and Multimedia) took a picture of our fence and it went viral.”

Soon after, another bus driver told Gretencord Putnam had been in an accident but would be coming back.

“The kids were excited to know James would be coming back to school,” Gretencord said. “It was scary not knowing where he was or why he was gone. Every single class (at the Children’s Learning Center) made James get well soon cards, and we sent them to his office so he would get them when he came back to work.”  

Gretencord’s class developed a special relationship with Putnam in the fall of last year.

“The kids had always known James as the bus driver who waved and honked as he passed by,” Gretencord said. “But in October a student worker found out his name for us, and so every time after that when he would pass the kids would shout, ‘Hi James!’”

Gretencord said Putnam took her class on a bus ride around campus.

“All the kids made him worms,” Gretencord said. “I know that sounds weird, but they painted sticks green and they each gave it to him as they got on the bus. You know, they’re just painted sticks. James took them from the kids, and he was so excited over painted sticks.”

Putnam said he sometimes gets strange looks.

“People aren’t always used to someone they don’t know waving at them,” Putnam said. “But I just try to say ‘Good morning’ and ‘Hi’ to everyone I see.”

Putnam started driving for the university in 2012.

“I used to drive downtown,” Putnam said. “But I like driving on campus better. It is more peaceful here. There is not a big rush to get from one end of the line to the other. I don’t have a crunch to be somewhere at a certain time.”

Putnam said he doesn’t have any kids of his own.

“It’s a great friendship I am able to build with students,” Putnam said. “When the daycare put the message on their fence, a co-worker sent me a photo when I was in the hospital. They colored me pictures too, and I received them when I came back to work. It warmed my heart; I am not used to stuff like that.”

Sydney Davis said she misses living on campus because of Putnam.

The senior elementary education major met Putnam her sophomore year when she started riding the bus.

“Riding the bus with James would immediately bring a smile to my face,” Davis said. “James would start a conversation, and it would make my whole day better.”

Davis said she thinks Putnam is a special person.

“People aren’t positive like James anymore,” Davis said. “James genuinely cares about every single person, and he wants to know who you are as a person.”

Davis said Putnam’s impact doesn’t stop at campus.

“I was at Hardee’s and James was waiting in line, and this woman was struggling to move this large container of iced tea,” Davis said. “James got out of line and helped her. It’s nice to see he’s a great person, not only on campus but all the time.”

Sydney Schmitt is one of the founders of #TheJamesWay Facebook page.

“I would be on Yik Yak and there were always posts about how awesome James was,” the junior nursing major said. “We started the Facebook page in response to that, and we have over 400 people liking the page.”

Schmitt said Putnam deserves more recognition.

“We started the Facebook page with the end goal of creating a club,” Schmitt said. “The club would promote friendliness and living more like James does every day. We would also like to make T-shirts, but we need more people interested in the Facebook page and in joining the club before we can do something like that.”

Putnam said he doesn’t know how much of a difference he really makes.

“I hope I make an impact,” Putnam said. “But I don’t really see that. It’s the students that make my day, and it makes me feel good to know they think I make their day.”